A photo essay. Words by S. Brent Rodríguez-Plate. Images by Robert Knight.
Everyone wants their picture taken with Joseph Smith, while Jesus Christ lingers in the background, roaming around a vast grassy field ebbing up a hillside. Missionary duos, smiling and perspiring in their white shirts and ties, help us find our bearing as the sunlight gives way to towering floodlights surrounding five-thousand green plastic chairs. It’s still quiet in this western New York farm country, but soon the music will swell and the pyrotechnics and waterworks will erupt, as almost seven-hundred people take their marks on a massive stage that juts up the hill.
My colleague and I came to this muggy land just south of Lake Ontario over the course of a few summers from 2013-18.* Rob’s a photographer and I’m a writer, and over the years we documented the Hill Cumorah Pageant, the “largest outdoor theatrical event in North America.” Put on by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it was originally designed to win souls and influence people.
As the area has been mostly saturated with the Mormon stories, the LDS church made the decision to cease operations. After eighty years of pageantry, the July 2019 performances were the unexpected finale—Covid-19 curtailed what would have been one last summer extravaganza in 2020.
Cumorah in space and time
Cumorah is the name of the western New York ridge where, the story goes, Joseph Smith was guided by the prophet-cum-angel Moroni in the 1820s to uncover ancient golden plates that had been buried there centuries before. These would become the Book of Mormon, and help launch what historians and critics often call the “quintessential” American religion.
Smith and the original Mormons left the area almost as soon as they consolidated their community, doctrines, and covenants, and didn’t return for a century. The LDS church bought the land in 1928 and since 1937 key scenes from the Book of Mormon were re-enacted under the lights every summer on a massive stage scaling up the eponymous hillside.
For now, children ramble just out of parental reach, teens toss Frisbees in the open spaces, and costumed cast members, including Joseph Smith and Jesus Christ, mingle and snap pictures with the crowd. Tens of thousands have arrived from across the United States—the three-thousand space parking lots is filled with Utah license plates—having made their pilgrimages in the family truckster to see a dynamic reenactment of their holy book. They’ve come to be in the sacred site of their tradition’s origins, and to watch their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, act out their faith on stage. Seated across rows and rows of chairs in a sprawling field, moods are enthusiastic, expectant.
Directing the play/Playing with direction
“This project has a lot of commonality with community theater,” Brent Hanson told us when we first met with him in his temporary office at the pageant site in 2013. Brent was the artistic director of the Hill Cumorah Pageant from 1998 through 2018. “It’s the connection, the willingness” of people to work together that kept Hanson going. The year before he took the helm, Donny Osmond left his leading role in Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat to perform for the Pageant, playing the prophet Samuel through the 2017 cycle. And with a combined 200,000 hours of volunteer service to produce, the pageant remains free and open to the public.
Hanson holds a PhD from Brigham Young University in Utah. During the fall and spring, he would work as a professor of theater at Southern Virginia University, a small liberal arts college with strong ties to the LDS church. Every summer for over twenty years he headed to western New York to oversee the cast and crew. Hanson says he likes the challenge of “making it big.” Over the course of each performance, every cast member makes at least one costume change, and Hanson has to keep check on the fire- and water-works that erupt on the mammoth stage every night.
The same prerecorded soundtrack has been used since the 1980s, so the actors don’t have to worry about memorizing lines or singing off key. The script of the drama was written by author Orson Scott Card, a great-great grandson of Brigham Young who is probably best known as the author of the Ender’s Games book in the 1980s. And since the songs are sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, no one on stage has to worry about hitting the right notes. Instead, “America’s Oberammergau” is pretty much all choreography and costuming, scenes of swordfights and shipbuilding, archaic families and their genealogies.
The multi-part stage is adorned with pseudo-Mesoamerican symbols, reflecting the epic drama that shifts from the Middle East to the Americas in the ancient world. Following accounts from the Book of Mormon, the pageant shows the prophet Nephi guiding the persecuted, pre-Christian people by boat to the Western hemisphere six-hundred years before Christ. In the Americas, two clans rise up, the Nephites and Lamanites, who fight each other over the centuries, culminating in a monumental battle at “Cumorah,” an event reenacted by hundreds of actors on the stage. The swords are fake, but still, it’s a lot of people slashing around.
Prophets rise and fall until the last one, Moroni, the son of Mormon, takes the golden plates that are the record of the people, and buries them on a hillside, 1400 years before Joseph Smith comes along. Jesus eventually appears to the people in the Americas, raised high up on the hill over the rest of the staged drama and lit with a chiaroscuro effect emphasizing his ethereal role: sacred and special, but slightly transcendent of concerns of this world. The prophets Nephi, Moroni, Mormon, and Joseph Smith are where our sympathies are made to lie.
Within such a sweeping epic, Hanson’s biggest challenge is keeping the story clear. The special effects are fun to play with, but he worries about the spectacle: too much flash and not enough message. An older version had a volcanic eruption that triggered car alarms and so were removed. “As quirky as it might sound in the 21st century, here I am, a guy with an academic career and a PhD and I really believe in God,” Hanson says. “And I think he has a plan for us. Ultimately that’s why I do what I do.”
Playing the roles
Rebecca came from Kent, England, to play a “ceremonial dancer in Jerusalem,” a relatively minor part among the possible roles in the pageant. A schoolteacher of drama, she traveled far to be a performer herself. When we met her in 2014, this was her first pageant, though about 40-percent of her fellow cast members had played parts in it before, helping to keep some continuity and relieving the task of the assistant directors.
Rebecca arrived in mid-July, along with the rest of the cast, and rehearsals started right away. During the first week they practiced from 8:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night. The initial performances got underway the next week and the schedule became a bit more relaxed, though the pageant lasts until 11pm each night. During these weeks, families of the cast members explore the Mormon visitor centers and nearby LDS temple, and take part in family programs and activities. But Rebecca came alone.
With bright eyes beneath heavy theatrical make up, and clear, calculated replies, Rebecca tells us some of her testimony. Her Mauritian father’s Islam had been the domestic spiritual staple of her childhood. Her parents’ divorce, a knock on the door by two missionaries, and a few years of life experiences later, the conversion to the Mormon faith set in. When she left home for university, she gained the freedom to decide her own spiritual direction: no more sneaking out of the house to go to church.
As a teenage girl, she felt the Muslim way of life was rigid and forced. But as she’s grown up and looked back, she finds Islam “beautiful,” full of values she wants to adopt for her future Mormon family. She doesn’t mention the strong doctrinal and mythological parallels of the two faiths—a single prophet receiving an entire revelation that supplements the Christian sacred texts, the zealous spread of the faith around the world in short periods of time, or even the occasional polygamous practices—but she does see similar dedication of the people of each tradition, of attention to modest dress, of the emphasis on charity.
When her father learned about her baptism into the LDS church, he cried, troubled that she was choosing the wrong path. But here she tells us it was not anger, but love, that prompted the tears. At 25, and about to act out her faith on stage, Rebecca says her relationship is stronger with her father now than it has ever been. “If you take those leaps of faith,” Rebecca says, “miracles will follow.”
Not everyone has the faith of Brent and Rebecca. Or, perhaps they do, it’s just faith of a different stripe. Each year during the pageant’s fortnight, a dozen or so evangelical protestors, ranging from benign to belligerent, show up around the fringes to persuade, demonstrate, and challenge the Mormons. Politically, each group overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Theologically, they see themselves as deeply distinct.
Downtown Palmyra is the site of most of the daytime bustle as families lunch at the pizza parlor or Chinese restaurant on Main street. It was there we meet a born-again pastor named Tony outside Grandin’s Print Shop where the first five-thousand copies of the Book of Mormon were printed. Reminding me of the laid-back surfer evangelicals I used to know in Southern California, Tony clutches his Bible firmly and says, “You gotta know what you believe.”
Tony uses apologetics to try to convince people to know more about their beliefs. He believes if he can present Mormons with their own theological doctrines, and how they are incoherent (from the standpoint of a particular reading of the Christian Bible), people will change their minds. He gives an example for us by aligning a series of Bible verses with verses from the Book of Mormon, showing two different accounts of the identity of Jesus: in the Bible he is the “Son of God,” in the Book of Mormon he is the “brother of Satan.” The two Jesuses can’t both exist, Tony logically argues, so we have to choose one over the other.
While Tony keeps to calm, cross-examinations of Mormonism, others come to the edges of the pageant grounds with bullhorns and signs lambasting Mormon “plural marriage” (a practice outlawed since the 1890s) or poking fun at Temple Garment underwear. They’ve traveled to Cumorah from all over the country, supported by larger umbrella organizations. They are former Mormons and worried family members who want their brothers and sisters, whether biological or in Christ, to stop, take some pamphlets, learn more about the perceived incoherence of the LDS church, and then seriously consider leaving it. They’re concerned about the uneducated Mormon, but even more so about the casual pageant-goer, who comes to see a play and leaves wowed enough to consider conversion.
Even so, most of those who do stop and talk seem to be other protestors. As evening nears, it’s doubtful anyone has really responded to the logic of apologetics. And as the music begins to swell in preparation for a roaring, epic drama, the retorts of the bullhorned are all but drowned out.
Protesting the Protesters
Considering their history, Mormon strategies of protest and counter-protest clearly evolved from the recurrent animosity they have faced, as well as engendered—there’s little question the nineteenth-century Mormons routinely raised the hackles of those they encountered.
In 1830, the original “Community of Christ” was formed, just after the Book of Mormon was published. By the next year, people around Palmyra had grown so weary of this “community” that they drove them out of town. In succession, through the 1830s and 40s they arrived at and departed Kirtland, Ohio, and then Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith himself was tarred and feathered in Kirtland, and killed in Nauvoo. Much of the discord had to do with Smith’s declarations of theocracy in the midst of a developing democracy. Most of the community kept packing up and heading further west, through the Great Plains, until they found lands in the Great Basin too sparsely populated to draw much complaint.
Persecution and stories of persecution can rally a people. Smith was well aware of this. Indeed, the Columbia University historian, and practicing Mormon, Richard Bushman subtitled his Joseph Smith biography “rough stone rolling,” following Smith’s own self-description. Smith was a mover and shaker, rough around the edges, making him a target of devotion and derision, qualities that often rubbed off on his followers, or perhaps attracted them to the faith in the first place.
If the anti-Mormon detractors and protestors over the years have done little to convert people, stop the church from growing, or shutting down the pageant, the LDS church has fulfilled part of the protestors’ mission for them. In 2018, the church made the decision that 2020 would be the final year of production for the Hill Cumorah Pageant. The official statement of the Church at that time states, “Local celebrations of culture and history may be appropriate. Larger productions, such as pageants, are discouraged.”
The pageant, and its demise, indicates just how much the LDS church is among the most media savvy organizations going, as it seems to be moving into a quieter, gentler phase. When the satirical musical Book of Mormon opened in New York City in 2011, the church could have responded by picketing or planning a large-scale telephone and social media protest. Instead, they opted for an ad campaign that showed up on NYC taxis and buses, the very vehicles that streamed down Broadway. Close-ups of individuals were prominently portrayed, accompanied by the phrase, “I am a Mormon.” The ethnically diverse faces represented a portion of the sixteen-million members of the LDS church globally, though reflected little of the dominantly white, male leadership of the organization over the past two hundred years.
Beyond the pageantry
In the twenty-first century, the church appears to have rethought its large-scale strategies. Prominent LDS member Mitt Romney made a run for the U.S. presidency in 2012, and Mormons around the country did not spend much time putting up posters and signs. What they did do was reach out to their local civic leaders, expressing concerns about getting involved, showing how they’re just like other Americans. Indeed, I currently serve on the board of a local interfaith coalition, a group that was originally formed from the work of local LDS meeting house members during the Romney candidacy.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a proselytizing institution with a strong belief that they hold a singular truth, and no one denies that. Yet they’ve begun to master the art of hiding in plain sight, developing a vivid but subdued public face now prominent in politics, business, and entertainment. They have relied on thousands of volunteer hours to put on grand theatrical dramas for the public, but now seeing the value in the low key.
Members of the church have settled again in the area around Cumorah, almost two centuries after Joseph Smith and his family were run out of town. The local LDS visitors’ centers annually receive tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists. In 1999, the church built a small temple in Palmyra, populated by local missionaries, Mormons who have moved to the area, and recent converts. The enthusiastic responses at the pageant each evening make it clear they are poised to stay, even if the pageant doesn’t.
I think this is why Joseph Smith may be more popular than Jesus Christ on the pre-show grassy field. The LDS church is maintaining an on-the-ground persona. No more volcanoes or fireworks or hundreds of thousands of watts lighting the stage, just smiling faces on billboards saying, “I am a Mormon.” Not some lofty altar or flying buttresses, though those exist too, but a story of someone who digs in the ground looking for lost treasures.
* Over the years we were aided by the work of several students, including Hannah Grace O’Connell, Jasmin Thomas, Alison Ritacco, Sawyer Kons, and Shannon Boley.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Born in the year of the Fire Horse, Professor Rodríguez-Plate has traveled the world seeking ways that people practice and/or fight against religious traditions, whether ancient or modern. Convinced that religion has less to do with beliefs than with bodies, Rodríguez-Plate queries the ways people connect with physical objects through sense perception: the things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are what give us our spiritual dimension.
Alongside their work as a professor at Hamilton College, Rodríguez-Plate is a writer and an editor, presenting research at museums, cultural centers, and universities across Asia, Europe, and North America. They’ve authored or edited 14 books, and essays have appeared in Newsweek, Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Christian Century, The Islamic Monthly, and the Huffington Post. Rodríguez-Plate serves on the board of the Interfaith Coalition of Greater Utica, NY and lives in Clinton, New York with their partner, two kids, and two black mutts. www.sbrentplate.net
Robert Knight explores the relationship between contemporary culture, architectural space and communities using photography, video, audio, and installation. Knight’s projects have been exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the Danforth Museum of Art in Massachusetts, Jen Bekman Gallery in New York, the LaGrange Museum in Georgia, The Bascom in North Carolina, the Houston Center for Photography in Texas, and at photography festivals in Nantes, Le Mans and Arles, France. His work has been the subject of recent solo exhibitions at Gallery Kayafas, Boston, MA, the Munson Williams Proctor Art Museum, Utica, NY, the Wellin Museum of Art, Clinton, NY, and the Dowd Gallery at SUNY Cortland. His art is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and numerous private collections. Knight received an MFA in photography from the Massachusetts College of Art & Design and a BA in architecture and economics from Yale University, and is currently an associate professor of art at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY.
To see more of Knight’s work, please visit: www.robertknight.com